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Not All Disabilities Are Visible: Improve Awareness and Access

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December 3rd is International Day of Persons with Disabilities. For 2020, " Not All Disabilities are Visible" has been chosen as a theme of this awareness campaign. 

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You can't see invisible disabilities, yet they're very real. (Image source: @BrittNashPix via Twenty-20 - no longer available)

Do you know which of your employees or colleagues are disabled and which are not? Think again! Not all disabilities are visible.

In this article, we'll discuss hidden or invisible disabilities. Discover what you can do to improve awareness, accessibility, and empathy in your workplace.

What Is the International Day of Persons With Disabilities?

The International Day of Persons with Disabilities was first recognized by the United Nations in 1992. The goal of this observance is to raise awareness. But this is more than simply recognizing that disabilities exist. Instead, the goal is to recognize the diversity of this global population and their rights. 

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15% of the population live with a disability. (Image source: @Wandeaw via Twenty-20 - no longer avaliable)

Why is this so important? Consider that the World Health Organization estimates that around 15% of people across the entire globe live with a disability of some kind.

This is an incredibly diverse population, originating from a variety of different cultures, genders, socio-economic backgrounds, and more. 15% of our world is over one billion people—these are our families, our friends, and our neighbors, whether they're next door or across an ocean. 

The Center of Disease Control and Prevention estimates that  one in four people in the United States lives with reported disability as a part of their lives—this would be over 80 million people. In Europe, this estimate is  six out of ten people. In Africa, the estimate is also around  80 million. This isn't taking into consideration the number of people who are unreported, either by choice or by other limitations.

This is our world and our people—respect and wellness enrich all of our lives. This is why recognizing this population is both important and valuable. 

What Is an Invisible Disability?

So, what is an invisible disability? Well, not all disabilities are visible outwardly, initially, or in ways one might assume.  For example, you might not notice someone else has chronic pain, especially if you don't know them or they didn't share this information with you.

The Invisible Disabilities Association explains that hidden or invisible disability also comes with the challenge of disbelief. Others can't see it, so they can't (or won't) understand. Misunderstandings and even insulting insinuations that one's faking or lying can be regular fears for people living with invisible illness and disability.

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Those with invisible illness are sometimes accused of faking their disability. (Image source: @FreedomTumZ via Twenty-20 - no longer available)

As an example, here's a short invisible disabilities list. Please note that this list isn't exhaustive or complete. It's not intended to exclude or elevate specific conditions, but rather to act as an introduction to a complicated and nuanced subject:

  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Autism
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy
  • Food Allergies and Digestive Syndromes
  • Learning Disabilities
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Personality Disorders
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis

This sample invisible disabilities list illustrates the diversity of hidden disabilities. Here's a list of even more at the Disabled World site.

Hidden disabilities can each present in a varied way, and certainly vary per individual. It isn't the mission of this article—or appropriate for your workplace—to diagnose, analyze, or come to conclusions about someone's wellness or health. Instead, we can listen and make ourselves more aware.

Because invisible disabilities rarely outwardly apparent, it's very important to be informed and sensitive to the reality of this population and their wellness.

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The more you know about hidden disabilities, the better you can respond. (Image source: @ijeab via Twenty-20 - no longer available)

Awareness is important. If we understand that not all disabilities are visible this insight can help us craft a more inclusive, compassionate, and accessible workplace.

Not knowing doesn't excuse offensive behavior nor does not seeing anything wrong. Instead, educating yourself on these topics can help further sensitivity. If you know of the subject of invisible illness and disability, you'll be better armed to respond in an empathetic and respectful manner.

Awareness, Sensitivity, and Inclusion

The words awareness, sensitivity, and inclusion have been used more and more in recent years. This is a wonderful thing—but what do they really mean, and how can you put them to use in a professional environment?

These are more than popular keywords. They can be a huge benefit to your workplace if implemented properly. Here's a closer look at these three words:


Consider invisible disability awareness a good starting point. It's important to try to understand. A commitment to understanding is also a commitment to continued education. No single source is going to complete your understanding.

Remain open to the idea that you don't understand everything. There's no finite end to learning. Knowledge is continual, and applying this knowledge is an adaptive process.

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Invisible disability awareness means listening. (Image source: @criene via Twenty-20 - no longer available)

The experiences, health, and wellness of others may likely vary from yours, especially if you don't live with a disability. Don't speak authoritatively for others or assume that you know what's best, even if you do empathize or have something in common.

An educated and aware perspective listens. It's okay not to understand everything—that's what learning is all about. Listening is an excellent way to learn and respond in an appropriate and respectful way. Even if your intentions are well meaning, you can end up in an offensive or destructive situation if you don't open your mind to learning and listening. It's especially important to listen to those most affected.


Workplace sensitivity is all about making sure your professional environment, and everyone in it, is fair and welcoming. That's the kind of environment you'd want to work in, right? Think about it: wouldn't you want to feel welcome and accommodated? Offering this courtesy to others is not only respectful but will have a positive ripple effect in the workplace.

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People with hidden disabilities can be a valuable part of a diverse team. (Image source: @Nodar via Twenty-20 - no longer available)

Here are some examples of sensitivity:

  • Language. Be aware of what's said in your workplace. Something that may not sound offensive to you could be demeaning or discriminatory. Remember, it's essential to look outside yourself and your own experiences. Think about others and think about the environment that you create via what you say.
  • Actions. Our actions can be similarly impactful. There's more to communication than words. Be mindful of your actions and how they communicate to others. Respect boundaries and acknowledge that your actions contribute to the work environment.
  • Policies. Are the policies in your professional environment sensitive to the needs, health, and wellness of your employees? Again, think outside of yourself and your own needs. Wouldn't you thrive in an environment where you're supported and nurtured?

Sensitivity is a wonderful investment, because recognizes the beauty of a diverse team. Creativity, different points of view, different skillsets—these things can all bring amazing talent to your business and truly contribute to its success. If your workplace only nurtures one type of wellness, then you're potentially missing out on a lot of beautiful people out there.


Take some time to think about what you offer your employees by way of accommodations. Consider this both broadly and in terms of diverse disabilities. Employment is often a large part of a person's life. Again, these concerns will likely apply to all your employees. 

Here are some questions to ask about your business:

  • Are there any options available to your employees, like support or health care? 
  • Are they taken care of?
  • Is there any sort of support system or resources available to your employees, if they need help or care?
  • Does the work environment itself nurture your employees' well-being or does it put emphasis elsewhere?
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Your employees may find it hard to disclose invisible disabilities. (Image source: @gigibunny via Twenty-20 - no longer available)

Disclosing a hidden disability can be a challenge for your employees. There may have been past circumstances that lead to embarrassment or intimidation to discuss this. There may be a fear of consequences. Work to create a welcoming environment of acceptance. 

Encourage flexibility, as well. Flexibility doesn't mean a lack of responsibility or a lack of productivity. Instead, flexibility helps with things like work life balance and wellness. These are vital parts of every employee's life, regardless of their position or background.

In fact, the Harvard Business Review found that the majority of the US workforce values flexibility in the workplace. But less than half actually have it. In the same report, flexibility was even found to have an association with feeling valued versus workplace dissatisfaction.

For those living with a hidden disability, this flexibility can make a significant impact in your employee's wellness and success. 

This is where Inclusion comes in. Inclusion can be defined as providing equal access to those who  may not have had that access otherwise. Inclusion goes beyond one perspective and actively works to accommodate and include many perspectives—like learning variations, physical or mental disability, and more.

Appreciating a Diverse Population

People from all walks of life have hidden disabilities. From scientific fields to culinary arts, to home life, to teachers, entertainment, and more—this diverse population is involved with so many parts of our society, our cultures, and our world. A few examples of famous figures with hidden disabilities include:

But famous figures are a small percentage of this population. Many people with hidden disabilities choose not to disclose this information.

Katherine Bouton lives with hearing loss. With an impressive history at the New York Times, Bouton openly discusses the reluctance and fear of speaking publicly about hidden disability. Many may have to face judgment, misunderstanding, negativity, and/or unwarranted criticism—as well as the anxiety and pressure of these confrontations.

This is why understanding, compassion, and awareness are so important and so impactful. 

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Not everyone with a hidden disability is willing to discuss it. (Image source: @ElleAon via Twenty-20 - no longer available)

More Information on Invisible Disability Awareness

This article is just a piece of a much larger subject. You're encouraged to continue reading, exploring, and educating yourself on the subject of invisible disabilities. Here are some resources to help you continue:

  • International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The International Day of People with Disabilities is a great place to learn more. From historical timelines to information and events, there's plenty to see.
  • The Invisible Disabilities Association. This is a great source of information, community, and more. This organization advocates for invisible illness awareness, hosts events, and much more.
  • Invisible Disabilities: List and General Information. This information, from robust resource Disability World, is another strong source. From general information to invisible disabilities quotes, there's a larger invisible disabilities list and much more.
  • Understood: For the Workplace. If you're looking for disability inclusion training, strategies for inclusion leadership, and more, check out this resource. There's also a wealth of information for families, teachers, students, and more.

There are also a number of articles on Envato Tuts+ that might help you further your insights. Check them out:

Invisible Disability Awareness Starts Today: But Keep Learning Year-Round

While December 3rd is International Day of Persons with Disabilities and we're encouraged to recognize invisible disabilities in 2020's observation, these topics are important all year round. Hidden or invisible illness awareness is a vital part of understanding and fostering a welcoming environment.

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Learning about invisible disabilities and illness is an on-going process. (Image source: @ninaidea via Twenty-20 - no longer available)

In closing, here's one of many wonderful invisible disabilities quotes. This one's from, an organization that advocates for hidden disabilities such as ADHD and dyslexia:

"Differences define who we are. Differences are our greatest strength."

Embrace your strength and the strength of your employees, your community, by embracing workplace inclusion, sensitivity, and accessibility. Here's to an even brighter year for all in 2021 and every year to come.

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